Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Marguerite Warren Springer: Mean Girl in a Privileged World

 "Mrs. Warren Springer, a well-to-do society woman of Chicago, visiting
in the "Ghetto." Mrs. Springer is one of the many noble-hearted women of our country that devote their time and money to the assistance of the deserving poor."


It’s an old story: a newcomer who wants desperately to be accepted by the elite. Usually, the way it goes is that the blue bloods give her a hard time.

The latecomer Mrs. Springer gave it right back, no pretty-please for her.  

The daughter of Irish immigrants, Maggie Maginness was born in 1870 in Newark, Ohio, about 30 miles east of Columbus. She always claimed that her family came from old Scotch-Presbyterian stock, yet inexplicably she lived in a Franciscan Sisters convent in Lexington, KY, between the ages of 10 and 20.

When Maggie left the convent, gossips said, she worked as a shop girl in Chicago. Presumably, that’s how she met the real estate and manufacturing mogul, Warren Springer, whom she married sometime during the 1880s. Daughter Frances came along in 1893; Warren’s son from his first marriage, William, was estranged.

And now Marguerite Warren Springer – she took her millionaire husband’s first name for her middle name, so there would be no confusion as to which Mr. Springer she was married – prepared to enter Chicago society with Gilded Age flourish.

There she is, volunteering with Chicago’s Visitation and Aid Society, patting a howling baby with her gloved hand.

Then she’s basking in attention, having pledged to provide land at Van Buren & Green Streets on which an Industrial Arts School would be built.

Next she’s telling the Cook County League of Women’s Clubs that the Chicago Public Library is a “trysting place for tramps.”

Now she’s starting an Illinois chapter of the Daughters of the Revolution after the Illinois chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution has turned down her application for membership.

Later, the D.A.R. regent, Mrs. Alice Bradford Wiles, stated that she “didn’t like what she knew about Mrs. Springer.”

What Mrs. Wiles knew was that in July 1894 Warren Springer posted $10,000 bail for his wife after she was indicted by a grand jury for attempting to bribe a juror in the case of Metropolitan Elevated Railway Co. vs. Warren Springer.

Mr. Springer had sued the company for damages to buildings that he owned. Marguerite approached the wife of a juror (or two jurors, or their mothers, depending on the newspaper report), who told the judge.

Hence a dramatic courtroom scene where Marguerite was identified as the briber. Indicted twice, she never served time.

Evidently, though, the feud between the D.A.R. and the Daughters of the Revolution went on and on. The two organizations sparred for primacy. Chicago’s society women had no choice but to take sides.

A “struggle for social supremacy,” as one reporter characterized it. By 1904, Marguerite had had enough.

That year, she once again attempted to influence her husband’s business dealings. An attorney named Julius Coleman was involved in litigation against Warren Springer. Marguerite wanted to get Coleman off the case.

She admitted that she started digging around and turned up a juicy story about Mr. Coleman. In 1881, he was arrested on a charge of perjury while practicing law in Indiana. He escaped from prison, fled to Mexico, and eventually returned to Indiana where the governor pardoned him.

Marguerite went to the newspapers with this information. The State of Illinois promptly started proceedings to disbar Coleman, who protested that he had told the truth when he applied for the Illinois bar. This created quite a stir.

And on top of everything, none other than Mrs. Julius Coleman was the regent of the Illinois chapter of the D.A.R.

The story broke while Mrs. Springer, Mrs. Coleman, and hundreds of other women were gathered in St. Louis for the annual convention of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. The D.A.R. faction declared its loyalty to Mrs. Coleman and denounced Marguerite Warren Springer. The following day, a front page headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune stated:
Will Ostracize Mrs. Springer;
Club Women Plan to Punish Chicagoan for Attacking Julius A. Coleman

Social ostracism for Mrs. Warren Springer is the plan decided upon by the club friends of Mrs. Julius A. Coleman, whose husband Mr. and Mrs. Springer are seeking to have disbarred because of an offense forgotten for 23 years. Mrs. Springer has admitted that she personally brought to light the old conviction of the lawyer, and Mrs. Coleman’s friends assert that she will be made to pay for this “spite work.”

The story closed with a quote from a Coleman ally:

Mrs. Springer has been trying by resorting to every method to get to the front in Chicago. This last attempt on her part to cause two hearts to ache as they have not ached for 20 years will not raise her any in the estimation of Chicago women.

Newspaper sketch of Marguerite Warren Springer, 1904

In 1912, Warren Springer died. Soon after, his widow contacted an architect to design a charity hospital for women which would be built on property on Harrison Street, Chicago.

The hospital would be six stories with an “elegant fa├žade,” a lighted crystal fountain, and a goldfish pool. There would be a private dining room and bedroom for Mrs. Springer. She asked the architect to create the Springer Coat of Arms, which “dated from the time of Charlemagne,” she told him, in gold on vellum.

As a physician “with a special certificate in gynecology and abdominal surgery,” she would practice in the hospital. Yikes!

Then it turned out that there would be just “eight small booths” for charity patients. Those women would enter the hospital through an alleyway, the architect said later.

He finished the plans and sent a bill to Marguerite Springer. She would not pay it so he sued her. Then he discovered that she didn’t own any property on Harrison Street.

Do you want to hear about Marguerite and the car raffle embezzlement incident?

See also June 15, May 4, April 6, March 6 + 10, 2016 posts.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Cigar Maker

My grandfather (right), cigar store proprietor;
the helpers wearing aprons worked with the cigars -- early 1920s

Genealogical research yields are so many small revelations, like when I found out that my mother’s father had been widowed before he married her mother, and that the wife who died had been pregnant.

Those types of discoveries, not advertised by, have the potential to shock and hurt. However, that is not always the case.

Me:       Mom, what would you say if I told you that your father had been married previously?

Mom:   At my age, nothing would surprise me.

Her father, Joseph Stromberg, emigrated along with nearly two million Jews from Russia to the United States during the decades surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. During these years, Russian Jews were subjected to unspeakably violent pogroms conducted by the Cossacks, which Czar Nicholas tacitly encouraged. The Ukrainian town of Letichev, where Joseph lived, underwent a wave of brutality between 1903 and 1906.

Joseph’s story is not remarkable; notable perhaps because he was just 14 years old and traveled alone. On November 5, 1906, he boarded the ship Smolensk, which departed from the port of Libau, in western Latvia on the Baltic Sea, arriving at Ellis Island on November 23.

The next time Joseph showed up was in 1916, petitioning for naturalization. He renounced all allegiance and fidelity to “Nicholas II, Emperor of All the Russias.” And his occupation was “cigar manufacturer.”

Cigar manufacturing in the United States, like much of what is learned about American history, reveals itself to be a story about labor strife. Often, cigar makers worked in the tenements where they lived and the entire family participated. Ribbons of leaves were stripped from the stems, the smaller leaves crushed and assembled, and the ribbons carefully rolled around the filler and secured with vegetable paste.

Larger shops had division of labor. “Casers” prepared the leaves by moistening and bending them. “Strippers” removed the large ribs of the leaves and stems. “Bunchbreakers” prepared the filler. “Rollers” rolled the filler, wrapped the strips of leaves around it, and cut the open ends. “Packers” put the finished cigars in boxes.

The English-born Samuel Gompers, who became the first president of the American Federation of Labor, started as a shoemaker’s apprentice at the age of seven but switched to cigar making when his family immigrated to the U.S. in 1863.

Within a few years Gompers had become a master cigar maker and moved to a larger shop where he was influenced by German socialists. In 1875, when the Cigar Makers International Union (CMIU) merged with United Cigar Makers of New York, Local 144, Samuel Gompers became its president.

Subsequently, Gompers began lobbying the New York State Legislature to ban cigar manufacturing in tenement houses. In 1882, he published a report about the working conditions of tenement cigar makers.

No. 90 Cannon St. is a five story double tenement house. Fifteen families live in the house, an average of four on each floor. Each family has a room and a bedroom; the size of the room is 11 by 13 feet, the bedroom 5-1/2 by 7-1/2 feet . . . *

The families worked from 6 in the morning until 10 or 11 at night. The rooms were filthy, filled with tobacco residue. Worst of all were the discarded tobacco stems, which became rotten and moldy, discarded in piles in the corners of the rooms.

In 1883, the New York State Legislature passed a bill abolishing cigar making in tenements. But the manufacturers danced around it and despicable conditions persisted. Cigar manufacturers and the CMIU continued to do battle for years.

Cigar Makers Journal, published by the Cigar Makers International Union
between 1875 and 1972

Who knows if Joseph Stromberg worked in tenement conditions? I think not (perhaps I would rather think not) because he lived in a part of Brooklyn where there were houses, no tenements. Either way, he made cigars until 1919 when he married Sarah Litowitz, the daughter of a shirt manufacturer who owned a factory that employed 77 people.

In the 1920 census, Joseph described his occupation as collar manufacturing, so he probably went to work for his father-in-law.   

But Sarah died of eclampsia in the spring of 1920. That is a dangerous condition of pregnancy involving very high blood pressure.

Joseph stopped making collars and returned to cigars, but this time he started his own shop with its own brand, “Dick Robin.”

He remarried in 1927. He met my grandmother because he was a boarder in my great-grandmother’s house.

Joseph remained a cigar store proprietor until the early 1930s, when he went into the luncheonette business. But that’s another story.

My grandfather advertised his own cigar brand,
"Dick Robin," in The Retail Tobacconist, 1922.

*Cannon Street is now an alley on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Springers of Chicago

Warren Springer, 1890s
Traveling back to 1890, the dark front hall of the Prairie Avenue mansion when the son walked out or was told to leave and never return. But evidently William hung around Chicago working as a streetcar conductor, ringing up fares paid by his millionaire father and stepmother as they rode in his car without speaking.

Then William “went out into the world for myself,” he later told a reporter.

While I had a good education, I found a few years later that if I intended to travel all the time I would have to have some sort of occupation where I could ‘catch on,’ as the saying is. From accounting I took up sign painting.

And that’s what William was doing in February 1912, painting signs in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the Capital City Advertising Company. Everyone called him Bill until the newspapers announced that his father had died and his stepmother had launched a nationwide search for the son to receive half of the $2 million estate. Incredulous, he heeded the call. 

“To begin at the beginning,” the new heir said, reflecting on his life story.

So literary!

He recalled constant quarreling with his father, Warren, who was very strict. “It appeared to me that he wanted to have all the fun, while I should tread the straight and narrow path,” William recounted.

The boy’s parents separated in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the 1870s. His mother promptly remarried. Warren off went to Chicago and made a fortune. First he built a machinery manufacturing plant but the Great Fire destroyed it in 1871. Soon after, Springer purchased land on Canal Street, along the Chicago River, for $50 per foot. He built a lumber mill that Chicagoans dubbed “Springer’s Folly” because of its location beyond the city’s original business district.

Warren ignored the ridicule and went on to build 13 more factories including a boot & shoe manufacturing plant and printing company, with offices and salesrooms located in the same building.

In 1893, he sold off his factories and began to invest full-time in Chicago real estate, becoming known as “the Father of the West Side.” 

Sometime during the 1880s, Warren Springer married Marguerite Maginness, an Ohio native. They would have a daughter, Frances.

Mrs. Springer became involved in the Arts and Crafts Movement in Chicago, pledging land on which an Industrial Arts League would be built. Her circle included the instigators Professor Oscar Lovell Triggs, Murray Schloss, and others who opposed capitalism and various social conventions. She also served as a Regent of the Daughters of the Revolution (a D.A.R. rival) and volunteered with several philanthropies.

Marguerite Warren Springer, 1890s
(newspaper sketch)

By February 8, 1912, when Warren Springer died, Professor Triggs had been fired by the University of Chicago and lived in California. But Marguerite made a big announcement. She planned to bring Triggs back to the city to help fulfill her late husband’s dream of a farm colony for the poor. On February 14, she told the Chicago Tribune:   

Mr. Springer experimented with agricultural schemes . . . He came to the conclusion that the cultivation of strawberries, raspberries, onions, sugar beets, and pickles would prove the most practical and profitable. He had the promise of a pickle manufacturer to establish a factory near the farm as soon as the colony was established.

The story was that Springer and Triggs had planned a colony which would provide "social betterment for the working classes." After Triggs’s dismissal, Warren begged his friend to start the community, Marguerite said, but Triggs was tired of the limelight and turned it down.

A few days after a story about the colony appeared on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, Marguerite offered a reward to the finder of her disinherited stepson, William.

“It was Mr. Springer’s last wish that I should find his boy and try to give him the happiness of the home from which he has been barred too long.” Then she pledged to give William half of the $2 million estate.

If William received the $1 million, he disappeared with it. The colony never materialized. Marguerite, who claimed to be a physician although she never advanced beyond high school, flitted about Chicago and remarried briefly in 1916.

I thought the story would end here. But it turns out that Marguerite Warren Springer, even in the glare of high society, came in many shapes and sizes.

To be continued.

See also May 4, April 6, March 2 + 10, 2016 posts.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Ben Franklin & Lana Turner

Bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin, mid-19th century

My friend Richard can restore any object in the universe. His particular talent lies in cars and furniture. He is very happy when you bring him an old piece; Victorian, perhaps, or early American.

He’ll walk around, shaking his head. “I think this chest was supposed to be painted. The wood is pine. Somebody stripped it and stained it to dress it up, but that’s wrong.

“The guy who made this – he went out to his barn one morning and said, ‘I’ll use these boards lying around, and those cotter-pin hinges.’

“It’s not meant to be fancy. Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”

Driving away, he’s already got it, if you know what I mean.

Later, he’ll describe how the chest looked originally and the mistakes made by the person who tried to restore it a half-century later.  

I can almost see my husband’s grandmother – her name was Marian – nodding her head and making that funny clucking sound, recalling something about its provenance and which room it graced in the family home on Church Street in Naugatuck, Connecticut.  

Her father, a physician named Edwin Johnson, had an eye for antiques. Born in 1867, he grew up the son of a joiner. That’s a carpenter who builds decorative pieces like crown molding and balustrades. The construction of those items usually occurs in a workshop, but Edwin’s father must have been installing something when he fell off a roof and was injured badly.  

The family had enough money to send Edwin to a private boarding school in Litchfield, Connecticut. Then he went off to study medicine at the University of Vermont. Sometime during the 1880s he married and was widowed; in 1890 he remarried to Cora Collins, an imperious young lady from Hillsborough, N.H.

“There were two villages, upper and lower,” Marian explained the first time we met. “The Collinses were from the upper village. And that (she pointed to a bureau) is the ‘Hillsborough dresser.’ I remember when it came down in a wagon from my grandparents’ house.” Cluck, cluck.

By the time Dr. Johnson died in 1930, he had amassed quite a collection of early American antiques. When his wife Cora died eight years later, three of their children – the eldest son, a black sheep, was excluded from everything – arranged a lottery so that the furnishings could be distributed as equitably as possible.

The "Hillsborough dresser," early 19th century (detail)

I like to contemplate the overbearing doctor, his life split almost evenly with 33 years in the nineteenth century and 30 years in the twentieth century, having such a strong affinity with furniture created well before he came into the world.

You see, by 1910 when he accelerated his purchases, the American furniture industry was well underway. Most Americans were happier with new furniture, with clean unblemished possessions. Also, new stuff demonstrated that the owner could afford it.

But there was a precedent for sticking with the past.

The Centennial International Exposition, held in Philadelphia in 1876, was the nation’s first official world’s fair. Many exciting things happened there, including a demonstration of Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone and Sir Joseph Lister’s lecture about the importance of antiseptic surgery.

Among the exhibitions, the fair showed examples of American craftsmanship, namely furniture from workshops such as Duncan Phyfe’s in New York City; also pieces by Philadelphia, Boston, and Rhode Island cabinetmakers.

Not coincidentally, after 1876 Americans began to appreciate and value American material culture.  

Dr. Johnson wasn’t looking for famous names, however. It turns out that his source, a grizzled Civil War veteran (is there any other kind?) who lived in rural Connecticut, liked old things and kept them in the hay loft of his barn. Once in a while the doctor would come by and purchase a few pieces.

“I’d like to give my daughter a dining room suite for her wedding,” he once told the man. “This drop-leaf table and those fiddle-back chairs. If you can find me three more chairs, I’ll buy the lot.”


A few years ago, Richard and I were driving around looking for interesting things. One store was a complete jumble, but Richard emerged from the way back hugging a grimy metal statue of Benjamin Franklin contemplating the universe. 

“I’m going to refinish this. Maybe I’ll keep it and maybe I’ll sell it,” he announced. I heard no more about it until a few weeks later when Richard said there was a problem.

“Lana and Ben aren’t talking to each other.”

He was referring to a large oil painting of Lana Turner that hangs in his dining room. Beneath the portrait is an Empire pier table where the newly refurbished Franklin was supposed to reside.

But it just didn’t work. Richard has great style and he knew the truth.

Now Ben lives in our house. He speaks early American.

The Little Time Traveler

  Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a...